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Rotten in Durham

The phenomenon of the “Duke Lacrosse Case” has left serious people with a sense that something has gone terribly wrong with Duke’s academic culture. Following news of the allegations, students predictably banged pots and pans, raised banners reading “castrate,” and passed out wanted posters with the photos and e-mail addresses of all the white members […]

The phenomenon of the “Duke Lacrosse Case” has left serious people with a sense that something has gone terribly wrong with Duke’s academic culture. Following news of the allegations, students predictably banged pots and pans, raised banners reading “castrate,” and passed out wanted posters with the photos and e-mail addresses of all the white members of the lacrosse team.

The most irresponsible and irrational claims came not from college co-eds, however, but from a broad swath of the faculty. The so-called “Group of 88,” a circle of mostly humanities professors, signed a full-page manifesto—“What does a Social Disaster Sound Like?”—published in Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle. The Group announced that the lacrosse case was a consequence of a longstanding “disaster” at Duke created by institutional sexism and racism.

Other professors behaved commendably throughout, and even Duke’s president, Richard Brodhead, has shown courage of late by readmitting the accused players. But the speed at which the administration parroted some of the Group’s most outrageous claims, and established a variety of multiculturalist committees, reveals the degree to which the ideology of the Group of 88 has achieved hegemony on campus.

Far from coming as a shock, the accusations that white students gang-raped a black stripper reached the Group as a kind of fulfillment of a dream. The case was, for them, an affirmation of what they always knew about Duke, Durham, and American society in general.

The Group’s main critics have chiefly focused on its presumption of guilt and demonization of the players. But they have left unexamined the “foundational myths” that underlie the Group’s response and give meaning to its claims.

By myths, I am not referring simply to falsehoods. It is obvious that the Group of 88 is disconnected from reality. According to the Department of Justice’s most recent National Crime Victimization Survey, 15.5 percent of white rape victims were attacked by blacks, while 0.0 percent of black victims were raped by white males. The notion that assaults on poor black women by preppy college students is a pressing national problem is patently absurd. This being said, no member of the Group of 88 is delusional or merely uninformed, so the challenge is to discern the presuppositions that lead them to understand the lacrosse case as they do.

That the Group is generally on the Left is true: a study by the Duke Conservative Union found that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in humanities departments 25 to1. Still the Group’s behavior does not derive from a coherent political ideology; nor does it support any partisan ends. Simply condemning them as a “bunch of liberals” is entirely unhelpful.

A better understanding can be ascertained by looking closely at the Group’s manifesto. The Group claims to be “listening” to the community, and the announcement features quotes from Duke students, replete with predictable accusations of racism. Most striking are the more general claims, at once hyperbolic and exceedingly vague. One woman says, “We want the absence of terror. But we don’t really know what that means … we can’t think. That’s why we’re so silent. … Terror robs you of language and you need language for the healing to begin.” The Group wants to “listen,” but the victims at Duke seem unable to speak. The advertisement ends with a reprimand, “Duke is not really responding to this.” And yet, an explanation of how Duke might possibly respond to general “terror” is neither offered nor expected.

Who would sign their names to such drivel? The Group is comprised of baby-boom scholars who further divide into two subgroups: professional black activists and rather tame liberals.

The professional activist element represents an interesting development on college campuses. While some are prolific scholars, many others have achieved tenure with little or nothing in the way of publications or research. Many of these professors can only justify their presence at Duke—and their six-figure salaries—through their campus politics. The lacrosse case gave them something to do.

Houston Baker is the prototypical example. A professor of English, he has built his vaunted reputation as a “public intellectual” through the fabrication of race scandals. In 1993, while Baker was at the University of Pennsylvania, he instigated campus-wide protests and attempted to have a student expelled for saying, “Shut up, you water buffalos,” while being harassed by a black sorority. (The student, Eden Jacobowitz, was Jewish, and the phrase is a translation of a Yiddish insult that carries no racial content whatsoever.)

Just as he was willing to sacrifice a Penn graduate student, at Duke, Baker has sent e-mail rants to a lacrosse player’s mother in which he refers to the team as a “scummy bunch of white males” and “farm animals.” With so much left to do, Baker has again moved on, this time to Vanderbilt. Expect the next campus race scandal to occur in Nashville.

Topping them all, at last in terms of rhetorical panache, is Mark Anthony Neal or, as he frequently refers to himself, the “Thug-Nigga-Intellectual”—a “dangerous nigger and America has never romanticized about its fear of angry ‘don’t give a f–k’ niggers.” Neal, a professor of English, claims that he must take on this persona because of his alienation from evil white Duke, evidenced by the mean looks he gets while “chillin’ with my homey Gramsci” at Starbucks. Despite his claims, the university has actually “romanticized about” Professor Neal a great deal, featuring a lengthy article on him in last summer’s alumni magazine.

The myth that Neal lives by informs his claim that whenever he “rolls into the classroom on the first day of class,” there is always somebody “in the house quietly utter[ing] ‘who’s the nigger?’” That a professor heard students whispering the N-word at politically correct Duke approaches the outer limits of credibility. What’s more instructive is Neal’s response: “I’m the nigga that gonna intellectually choke the living s- -t out of you.”

Last April, activists like Baker and Neal found institutional validation in the Campus Culture Initiative (CCI), created as a kind of Committee on Public Safety to ensure the proper amount of multiculturalism among Duke undergraduates. Yet as the various participants admitted in interviews, their discussions were poorly attended and basically amounted to preaching to the converted. In the end, even the professional agitators began to loose interest. On Jan. 3, Professor Karla Holloway, chair of the “subcommittee on race,” resigned from the CCI, protesting the university president’s decision to reinstate the accused players. Holloway complained that, although Brodhead established the CCI and allowed her free reign, he did not protect her from criticism in various blogs and publications.

Professional victims are a minority in the Group of 88, however. It is composed mostly of white liberals, who are legitimate scholars and achieved tenure on the basis of merit. When they discuss, say, the American presidency, Nazi Germany, or the poetry of Robert Brasillach, they do so with an acumen and responsibility absent from their writings on the lacrosse case. Moreover, unlike the activists, it is not obvious what they have to gain by sowing race hysteria.

Yet the lacrosse case is deeply important to them, and their writings reveal that they are haunted by a kind of “primal scene” of sexual-racial oppression. In an essay for The Chronicle, Bill Chafe explicated the myth: “Sex was an instrument by which racial power was manifested and perpetuated. Why are most African Americans of a lighter hue than Africans from Nigeria? Because at some point in the past, or present, white males have ‘had their way’ with black women. White slave masters were the initial perpetrators of sexual assault on black women, subsequent generations continued the pattern.” “Subsequent generations,” Chafe intimates, that include the accused Reade Seligman and Collin Finnerty.

Chafe then goes on to claim that the 1954 lynching of Emmitt Till “helps to put into context what occurred in Durham.” He concludes, “Whether or not a rape took place, there is no question that … white students hired a black woman from an escort service to perform an erotic dance.” Is this a crime? Chafe seems unable to view the lacrosse team’s hiring of a black stripper outside the “context” of his gothic portrayal of miscegenation.

Professor Tim Tyson follows suit: “The spirit of the lynch mob lived in that house on Buchanan Boulevard, regardless of the truth of the most serious charges.” Translation: no matter what actually happened, the lacrosse team is guilty of ritually enacting racial-sexual violence.

After these early examples, viewing the case as intricately related to some kind of sexualized lynching became obligatory among the Group of 88. In October, economics professor Stephen Baldwin penned a defense of the lacrosse team in which he claimed in jest that the Group of 88 should be “tarred and feathered.” Robyn Wiegman, the Director of Women’s Studies, followed form in her passionate rebuke. Without addressing the content of Baldwin’s essay, Wiegman reminds us that “Being tarred and feathered is the language of lynching.” It is, in fact, a much older cliché, and Baldwin did not direct his criticism toward the accuser. But this is unimportant in the world of meaningless insinuation.

As an alternative, Wiegman claims that Duke should “cultivate a community of critical thought.” By “critical thought” she seems to mean empathic nodding, endless “listening,” and the complete absence of criticism directed at professors. The managerial elite in this “community” would undoubtedly be none other than Wiegman, Neal, Chafe, and Baker. In this vision of the university, one’s eagerness to “listen” to designated victims has become the chief means of securing status.

That the sundry statements of the Group of 88 are incoherent, illogical, and generally poorly written is beside the point. For it is through this inarticulateness that the Group seeks to stake out a position that cannot be criticized or even rationally assessed. For them, the lacrosse case was never about a possible crime but was instead an expression of an unspeakable “terror,” “the spirit of the lynch mob,” or a fantasy of Duke undergraduates whispering the

N-word. In turn, this inarticulateness affirms the utter impossibility of any actual response: the Group seeks to “cultivate a community of critical thought,” expatiate white guilt or, in Professor Neal’s case, “intellectually choke the living s- -t out of you.”

The fact that a large portion of Duke’s faculty operates in this manner is as significant a problem as District Attorney Mike Nifong’s misconduct and cable news’s love of a good witch hunt. As is often the case, those who seek power usually have the greatest pretensions of authenticity and moral outrage.


Richard Bertrand Spencer is a doctoral student in European Intellectual History at Duke University.



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